In a new book published by Harvard University Press, “Hate Crimes in Cyber Space” Prof. Danielle Citron lays her prescription for tackling the “awful internet”. In the wake of the Fappening and innumerable cases of cyber harassment, hers is a timely and authoritative intervention. Since Prof. Citron has already testified before Parliament on cyber hate and sits on the influential Anti-Cyberhate Working Group, her book and views are likely to inform future policy and legislation towards the internet.

In particular, Citron proposes a proactive legal approach, encouraging criminal convictions for deterring offenders and improved police training to enable authorities to identify when and how a crime has been committed. Citron also focuses attention on the state-like role of Internet Service Providers (ISPs) to argue that, in wielding the power of a state over many aspects of our lives, ISPs should no longer be able to claim to be mere conduits for material that constitutes criminal acts.

Most noticeable in Citron’s account is the seemingly magical ability of the market to transform “mere conduit” ISPs into responsible guardians of the web – whenever their profits are threatened. Thus when in May 2013 Nissan and other companies threatened to remove their advertising content from Facebook unless pro-rape pages were removed, Facebook acted accordingly. 

More recently Facebook has become embroiled in a spat with a group of celebrity drag queens over their alleged right to hold Facebook accounts under their “stage” names (e.g. Lil Ms Hot Mess). The drag queens argue that they rely on the anonymity (indeed, privacy) that their pseudonym affords them online and that being unable to use their stage names could not only expose them to unwitting family or colleagues, but also render them unidentifiable to their fans. 

Many applicants for training contracts who have taken the precaution of adopting carefully altered social media usernames could sympathise. Facebook argue that their “real-name policy” works to prevent trolling and harassment, a view that is supported by the US-based advocacy group the Anti-Defamation League.  But what of the right to privacy, not only for the drag queens of San Francisco but also for the myriad victims of cyber-stalking who may wish to use social media in the wake of harassment under their real names? Surely in its stately power and wisdom Facebook can find a way to deal with the real-life needs and nuances of the social system that it lords over?  On this, as with so many difficult ethical questions, Facebook and others retreat behind the walls of blanket policies and broad brush-strokes.

Facebook’s ownership of your personal information means little if Facebook and those it shares the information with cannot be certain to whom they are advertising. It will require some heavy campaigning to wrest control of the real-name policy into the hands of the users. On the other hand, Lil Ms. Hot Mess and her companions are no strangers to fighting for their place in society so there is little reason to believe that they will be dictated to in the online community either.